This is a film set apart from the hard-drinking, crusty-but-benign clichés that movies built around working journalists, far from the Noam Chomsky generalizations of reporters who only seek convenient truths, the kind that won’t offend the corporate elites who run their newspapers. It’s about deeply flawed humans who miss big pictures pursuing breaking stories and come in on the weekends to nurse their regrets, not great spouses or parents but people committed to making their communities less secret and more humane, a film about real reporters.
The nondescript title refers to a small division of the Boston Globe staff dedicated to long investigative work, secretly putting together stories until delivered solid. The story begins in 2001 with the arrival of a new Globe editor named Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), a New York Jew in a Catholic-school world who reads an alarming column in his own paper that alludes to a priest sexually abusing children with a church apparatus apparently covering for him. Baron directs the Spotlight staff to look into allegations, and the story keeps expanding in horrible dimensions. (The film is based on pieces written by the Spotlight team, which won the Boston Globe a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.)
Director Tom (The Station Agent) McCarthy brilliantly and subtly manages a large cast spewing volumes of dialogue, yet makes the two and a half hours slide by with exhilarating pleasures and deft moments of pained revelations. Not for nothing was McCarthy a performer on HBO’s The Wire. He makes the procedures riveting. And we don’t want the movie to end. But the cast is equally compelling, from Mark Ruffalo’s Brando-ish turn as Mike Rezendes to the newly risen Michael Keaton as the smooth but secret-harboring Spotlight chief Walter Robinson. Stanley Tucci’s grouched-out hero lawyer seems like an emblem of the whole film. Momentous truth rising up from a pool of anxieties and small dedications, it’s the inside scoop on how good newspapering happens.